Follow the boardwalk at Catcott or visit other Trust reserves to put Chris Chappell's advice into action.
May is a dramatic and eventful month in the natural world, as the days lengthen, and the sun warms the land. Cuckoos, nightingales, swifts and swallows can be seen and heard. This is the height of the breeding season for most wild creatures. Flowers line the hedgerows, and wild meadows are full of early orchids, yellow rattle, oxeye daisies, buttercups, dandelions and many more.
A cold April has slowed the greening of the countryside, which is a challenge for nesting birds looking for cover. But this month will see a surge in the growth of vegetation and the number of insects, along with the flowering plants they need to feed on.
The last of the spring migrant birds have now arrived, and swallows are settling into the villages around the county, cuckoos are calling across the levels, and up on Exmoor. One of the last birds to arrive is the very pretty spotted flycatcher, a delicate beak, streaky chest, and as much identified for the habit of returning to the same branch or twig after forays after insects. The spotted flycatcher is becoming rare, down by over 80% in 30 years, for reasons unknown, but possibly due to environmental degradation in Africa, where it winters. The reed beds on the levels are ringing with the chattering of reed and sedge warblers, punctuated by the explosive call of the resident Cetti's warbler. Noisy blackcaps call in woods and thickets, with chiff chaff and willow warbler above them. But as the birds settle to the business of breeding, they will become quieter, so as not to attract attention to the nesting sites. Adult birds are busy feeding their broods, and blackbirds will be seen in the garden with a beak full of worms, or warblers collecting flies.
Butterflies abound on sunny days, peacock, brimstone, orange tip, comma and speckled wood will all be seen. Now that there are some flowers to feed on, they will flourish and start to breed, laying their eggs on the foliage, which will soon hatch as caterpillars.
The Collared Dove
The collared dove is now a familiar sight in our towns and villages, and the rather plaintive call and monotonous cooing are part of our soundscape. But before 1950, they were a rare sight in the UK. In 1956 birdwatchers were very excited to discover a pair nesting in North Norfolk, and a guard was mounted over the nest due to their rarity and perceived vulnerability. Prolific breeders, they have spread from Asia through the Middle East and across Europe, and now number some one million pairs in the UK. They are pretty birds, delicate hues of pinks and greys, with a smart black collar, black and cream banded tail feathers, and deep garnet eye. Male and female are almost identical. Their choice of nesting site isn't always very sensible, choosing exposed and precarious sites, but if the nest fails, they will just start again. Two small white eggs are laid, as with all pigeons, and these are soon hatched, within 14 days or so, and 17 days after that the young are fledged. Up to nine broods per year have been recorded, which is remarkable. It is interesting to note that pigeons are one of a small group of birds (including flamingoes and male emperor penguins) that produces a nutritious milk, which is rich in antioxidants and immunity enhancing factors. Feeding this to their fledglings is essential to the survival of their offspring. Collared doves flourish when living in close proximity to man, and do little, or no harm. The cock birds will fight ferociously when competing for a hen. Some people find their mewing and cooing annoying, others are enchanted by the sounds. Either way, they are now firmly established in our birding world.
Dragonflies and Damselflies
Dragonflies and the related smaller damselflies are now emerging from their nymphs, climbing reed stems before breaking free of the exuvia, or larval case, which may be found sticking to the reed. Damselflies are distinguished by their smaller size, weaker flight and separated eyes. After a period of drying out in the sun, they will flex their wings, and set off to hunt the smaller insects they feed on. Dragonflies have very powerful wings, which enable them to accelerate rapidly through the air, and also very good eyesight, enabling them to hone in on prey. There are just 57 recorded species of Dragonfly (Odonata) in the UK, of which 40 might realistically be seen, so it is quite feasible to learn their identification if you become interested. The hairy dragonfly and the four-spotted chaser are among the first to emerge. There is some complexity, however, with variations in sex, and colour changes with age. Irrespective, they make wonderful subjects for macro photography, and on a still warm day they can easily be approached. the rivers and ponds of Somerset are superb habitats for many species
This is the best time to hear the dawn chorus. The birds start to sing just before daybreak, so you will need to set your alarm. An early start will be well rewarded with the bird song ringing throughout the woods as numerous species compete for attention. It is an experience you will always remember, and is a chance to find out what is about. Song thrushes call from the top of a tree, their loud call consisting of short phrases repeated two or three times. You may hear the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, as it claims its territory by hammering on a hollow trunk. The loud cackle of a green woodpecker, or yaffle, will echo through the oak trees. All this to a background of tits, warblers, finches noisily chiming in. Robins, dunnocks and the boisterous little wren will also join in. If you are very lucky you may hear a nightingale, with its unmistakeable warbling and trilling call, their song is not restricted to the night time. However, this now rather rare bird is at the western limit of its territory. The nightingale is a fairly undistinguished brown bird a little bigger than a robin, more heard than seen, as they like to sing from a dense copse.
Spring plants and flowers
May blossom is the flower of hawthorn and is now coming in bloom, lighting up the hedges and hillsides. The woods are full of the spikes of cuckoo pint, or wild arum, also known as lords and ladies. This strange plant will produce bright red berries later in the year, but is generally thought poisonous and best not handled. Wild clematis is starting to creep along the hedgerows. Yellow rattle, oxeye daisy, buttercups and spotted orchid will be seen in meadows that have escaped modern farming methods. Long Wood (just north of Cheddar) is the Trust's oldest reserve and has a good display of bluebells at this time of year. While in the area you can also visit the adjacent reserves of Black Rock, Velvet Bottom and Ubley Warren, which between them have too many attractions to list, but boast snakes and lizards, and some rare bird and plant species. Plan a day out with the help of your SWT Nature Reserves Guide.
Collared Dove fledgling preening
Four-spotted Chaser Dragonflies
All photographs by Chris Chappell